Women riders take the reins in the macho world of charrería.
Ride Like a Girl
Women riders take the reins in the macho world of charrería.
by Rose Cahalan
July 10, 2017
“¡Otra vez!” shouts Jimmy Ayala. “Do it again.” In the fading light, eight teenage girls on horseback gallop toward each other head-on. At the last possible moment, just when a collision seems inevitable, they turn ever so slightly, and the knot of horses and riders untangles into a seamless line. Each horse passes so close by its neighbor that their tails nearly touch. Then the riders disperse into a wide circle around the perimeter of the lienzo (arena), slowing to a trot. Ayala breathes a sigh of relief or frustration — it’s hard to tell which. “Not good enough,” he says. “Otra vez, faster this time.” He pauses to mop sweat from his brow with a baseball cap before they begin again. “¡Va!”
It’s the fifth time the riders of Las Coronelas, an escaramuza team, have repeated this particular maneuver, called a cruce (cross), during an April 19 practice at the San Antonio Charro Ranch, and it won’t be the last. The team has only four days left to prepare for a performance before a crowd of 1,000 as part of San Antonio’s citywide Fiesta celebration. According to Ayala, their coach and the father of two riders, they aren’t ready yet. “Right now, we’re OK, but not where we need to be,” he says. “We’ll get there.”
Escaramuza means “skirmish,” an etymology that pays tribute to the women who fought alongside men during the Mexican Revolution. The sport is sometimes described as ballet on horseback, though that analogy doesn’t fully capture its danger and speed. Las Coronelas and other all-female precision riding teams perform daredevil maneuvers at full gallop, without helmets or other protective gear. Escaramuza is the only women’s event within charrería, or traditional Mexican rodeo, and it’s little-known outside the Hispanic community. It’s also relatively young: Though charrería is more than 500 years old, escaramuza was invented in the 1950s and only became a competitive event in 1991. The sport, like the young women who carry on the tradition, is still finding its way.
Before practice, dusk settles over the quiet, wooded South San Antonio neighborhood where the charro ranch has hosted practices and competitions for more than 70 years. A screech owl trills over the faint pulse of cumbia music drifting from a barbecue nearby. In jeans, T-shirt and dusty boots, María-Salomé González brushes the glossy chestnut coat of her horse, Pilón, outside his stall. He’s 12 years old, and she’s 13, “so we’ve pretty much grown up together,” she says.
González started riding at age 4. According to family lore, her great-grandfather once rustled cattle from Texas to Mexico to start his own ranch. “I love that I’m continuing something my family has been doing for centuries,” González says. “It’s my escape, my outlet.” Explaining the sport to white friends can take some time, she notes. “When I tell people that this is my hobby that I love to do, they’re like, what? But that just makes it more fun. It’s all mine.” Her team, Las Adelitas, advanced to the U.S. national competition in California and placed 10th last year.
Like all escaramuceras, González rides sidesaddle. The position is much more difficult to learn than riding astride, but González says it has become second nature. Often, sitting in the car or at her desk, she catches herself instinctively leaning to the side. But when she competes in the barrel-racing event at the San Antonio Rodeo, she rides Western-style — switching between the two modes as smoothly as she does between Spanish and English. “I like to do both, because they’re so different,” she says.
Unlike Western rodeo, charrería has no individual events. Even when the focus is on a sole competitor— as in bull riding, calf roping and steer tailing — only team scores are awarded. The sport is completely amateur, with no professionals or payouts, and style is valued over speed. Escaramuza riders are scored not just on their precision, but also on their appearance. “Our dresses have to be uniform, our jewelry has to be silver,” Lydianna Saldaña, a Las Coronelas rider, tells me. “It’s all about creating a clean, cohesive look as a team,” González adds.
Make no mistake, though: Under the heavy mascara, ruffled skirts and embroidered sombreros are serious competitors. True, escaramuceras may not perform the paso de la muerte — a death-defying trick in which a charro leaps from his own galloping horse to a bareback wild mare — but two riders told me they’d had surgery for injuries sustained from falls. A third said she’d fought anxiety to get back on the horse after being thrown during a competition. “It’s definitely an adrenaline rush,” González says, “but that’s part of the fun.”
Just under a mile from the San Antonio Charro Ranch sits Mission San José, its limestone bell tower overlooking a shady lawn. Today, camera-wielding tourists mingle with the sharply dressed crowd letting out from Sunday mass. Native Americans toiled here 300 years ago, farming corn and working cattle under orders from Franciscan missionaries. In these missions as well as in haciendas across Mexico, the sport of charrería evolved from the periodic cattle roundups, or rodeos, held by ranch hands. After the Mexican Revolution, people migrated to cities, many haciendas went out of business, and the rodeo evolved from a utilitarian event into a nostalgic one.
Charrería predates the U.S.-Mexico border, but escaramuza is firmly Mexican-American. Scholars trace the sport’s origins to Houston, where in 1950 the charro Luis Ortega started a children’s precision riding team and took it on tour across the United States. In 1952, a similar team popped up in Mexico City. These first teams were coed, but according to University of Southern California anthropologist Olga Nájera-Ramírez, precision riding was soon deemed “demasiado femenino” for boys and men. Too feminine. By 1958, all-women’s escaramuza teams were performing at charreadas across Mexico and Texas, though the event was just for show. There are now several hundred escaramuza teams nationwide. Still, escaramuza wasn’t added as an official competition until 1991. This history belies the widespread notion that the sport is an ancient way of preserving Mexican heritage, says Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, a University of Texas at Austin professor who studies the border and gender.
“Many people see charrería as a working-class immigrant form to preserve culture, but it’s also all about class,” says Guidotti-Hernández. “Horses are really expensive. At some level, it’s as much about signaling class status as it is about community.” (Guidotti-Hernández herself was the 1992 Fiesta Queen in Salinas, California, but her parents couldn’t afford a horse when she asked for one.)
The barrier to entry is indeed steep. Boarding and feeding a horse costs more than $400 per month in San Antonio. The dress is typically $300. Then there are the boots, silver jewelry, a hand-embroidered sombrero, the sidesaddle and bridle. “By the time they’re done, they’re wearing about $1,500,” says Ayala, the coach. For those who can foot the bill, Guidotti-Hernández says, “If you have class aspirations, you can achieve those through your daughter.”
Seen this way, could it be that women in the escaramuza are still decorative objects, just as they were a half century ago? The traditional riding dress is called the adelita, after the female soldiers who fought on horseback in the Mexican Revolution. That might sound surprisingly progressive, but Nájera-Ramírez notes that part of this tradition is the famous corrido (folk song) “La Adelita,” which reduces La Adelita to a sexual conquest:
Y adelita se llama la joven
a quien yo quiero y no puedo olvidar;
en el mundo yo tengo una rosa
y con el tiempo la voy a cortar.
(Adelita is the young maiden
who I love and cannot forget;
in this world I have a rose,
and in time I will cut this rose.)
Many of today’s riders aren’t interested in or aware of this complicated history, of course. González, when asked the meaning of her team name, Las Adelitas, shrugs: “I have no idea.” Others have reclaimed it for themselves. Yazmin Bernal, the 2017 Charro Queen and a rider with Las Coronelas, says she feels “tough” when she wears the traje de adelita. “It’s the outfit that women would wear alongside the men during the revolution,” she says, “and I like being a part of that tradition.”
Still, charrería remains a male-dominated sport, and if you’re a woman who wants to rope cattle or ride in any of the nine events other than the escaramuza, you’re out of luck. Will there ever be a coed team or an all-women’s charreada?
“I think it’ll happen, but it’s going to take some time,” Guidotti-Hernández says. “It’s taken, what, 40 years for all-female mariachi groups to show up? Eventually, there will be a group of young women who get together and try something new. … Yes, I think we’ll see an all-women’s charreada someday.”
At 1 p.m., two hours before the charreada is set to begin, the stands are already filling up. The crowd is about half Hispanic, half white. Everyone is wearing either a brightly colored paper-flower crown or the embroidered Mexican blouses so popular here that you can get them for $15.99 in the H-E-B seasonal aisle, or, for the men, guayaberas.
Food vendors set up folding tables and coolers in the shade. There are paletas, mangonadas in giant styrofoam cups rimmed with chili powder, aguas frescas in five flavors, gorditas dripping with oil, and a taco truck whose heavenly scent has produced a line 30 people deep. Ballet folklórico dancers in voluminous rainbow skirts twirl under a papel picado banner. “¡Tenemos 70 años de existir aquí en esta ciudad!” (“We have 70 years of history here in this city!”) booms an announcer into a staticky microphone.
Then the charros and charras ride in, and the cheering starts. They process in solemnly to the song that starts every charreada, “La Marcha de Zacatecas.” One rider balances her toddler daughter on her saddle, the tiny red dress and silver earrings a perfect miniature of her own. After the Mexican and U.S. national anthems are played, after various mustachioed men present plaques to one another, Las Adelitas are up.
All eight riders cross themselves before spurring their horses to begin, whipping them with mesquite branches to gallop ever faster. They perform three kinds of cruces, giros (spins), la trenza (the braid) and el abanico (the fan). This last maneuver elicits the loudest cheering, as it requires all eight riders to gallop rapidly in a line, just inches apart. The woman on the outside must ride twice as fast to stay in formation with her teammate at the center. At one point during a cruce, one horse lags behind and its head crashes into the neck of another. The crowd gasps, but both riders recover immediately.
The events at this show alternate between the men and women, with each of three escaramuza teams following charros who perform bull tailing, horse roping, bull riding and all the other events. The men’s events can drag on and on, as each charro attempts again and again to throw his lasso at just the right moment. The best moments come when something goes wrong, as when a floppy-eared white calf evades capture for nearly 15 minutes, sprinting around in a panic. Maybe I’m biased, but I can’t help but notice that more people file out of the stands to buy another Dos Equis during these events. The escaramuza, on the other hand, is hard to take your eyes off of. Look away for a moment, and you might miss a crash or a spin.
Finally, it’s time for Las Coronelas to ride. Dust rises around their horses’ ankles as they trot in, red skirts and embroidered white blouses practically glowing in the light. As they take their places, I spot Yasmin Navarro, 20, crossing herself. I’m nervous for her; she’s only been practicing the escaramuza for six months, far less than many of her teammates. At practice earlier that week, she’d struggled to control her horse, who was acting up after eating too much. There’d been fear in her eyes as he reared and whinnied. Today, there’s no trace of that. Her smile is impenetrable as she raises her right hand in salute before the music starts, and her horse never falters. Later, I find her under the stands, posing for pictures with fans and watching the rest of the show. “I felt really confident out there today,” she says. “I felt strong.”
See more photos from the charreada.